It wasn’t that long ago when locally owned bait shops were scattered among Kokomo’s landscape. Some had actual storefronts while others were run out of converted garages. Places like Mal’s, Bryant’s, Alley Tackle, Martin’s, Jack’s, Mom and Dad’s and Hamler’s, come to mind. Other smaller shops were located in unassuming neighborhoods with simple names like Jim’s, Mark’s and Back Alley Bait. Several of these had electric buzzers you could push any time day or night. The owner would come out and gladly fill your order of worms, minnows, extra hooks, and of course, Hostess snacks.
Back then acquiring live bait was a short drive and easy proposition before heading to your favorite fishing hole. But times have changed. These locally owned stores have gone the same way as drive-in theaters, rotary dialed phones and K-Mart subs.
“We miss them as much as anyone,” said Liz Bryant, co-owner with her husband Billy, of Kokomo’s last remaining year round tackle shop. They have operated their store for over 33 years but are at the age where they would like to sell their business in hopes of enjoying their golden years. “Naturally we want it to remain a tackle shop but that’s something we can’t guarantee,” she added. Spring Hill Camp Ground and Pay Pit, located in western Howard County, provide live bait as well during the fishing season. Up until recently, if you wanted live bait, those were your only two options.
Many bait and tackle shops have been forced out of their long existence due to competition from internet dealers, mail order catalogs and superstores that sell everything from lures to ladies lingerie.
In case you haven’t noticed, many convenience stores tried to fill the niche by selling night crawlers and wax worms from small refrigerators tucked next to cans of soda pop and other impulse items. Needless to say if you want anything other than a small selection of worms or larvae, you still have to visit a real bait shop.
Speaking of bait, fishermen can be a finicky bunch. We want our minnows lively and worms writhing with action and this only happens when they are fresh, the same as most want their bread and milk. Bait that has been packed for weeks in small Styrofoam boxes don’t last as long nor provide the lively action and scent choosey anglers prefer.
Pat Millspaugh has been an avid fisherman since childhood, still taking to the water at every opportunity. He is also the owner of Critter Corner, a well-known Kokomo pet store he opened in 1987. “I hate to see the small locally owned bait shops dwindle in numbers as much as anyone,” he said, during our recent conversation. “I picked up a lot of good information and have fond memories from the bait shops I used to visit.”
A short time ago and at the insistence of others, Millspaugh began dipping his toes in the live bait business. He is now amazed at the number of people who visit his store and the business it generated. “A few years ago people started coming in to buy small goldfish for catfish bait and beemoth for panfish,” he explained. “We already carried them because some use them to feed pets such as reptiles.”
Word slowly got out and more fishermen began frequenting the store. Then one of Millspaugh’s suppliers told him he needed to offer a full service live bait department. “He said I needed to put in minnow tanks,” he added. He took their advice and now large fiberglass troughs line a room in the back of the local business. But as any smart businessman, he approached the new endeavor cautiously. “I learned years ago it’s better to step in gently instead of jumping right in,” he explained.
Over the past year Critter Corner now sees a constant flow of anglers purchasing numerous types of bait and the store’s offerings continue to grow. Currently anglers can buy crickets in various sizes, beemoth and leeches. Millspaugh also carries regular and smaller size night crawlers as well as the green colored variety. He also stocks red wigglers, another type of popular fish bait.
If it’s minnows you’re looking for, the store sells the larger shiners and common fathead minnows used for crappie and bass. If you want something even bigger they also supply suckers, which many prefer when fishing for tackle busting catfish.
“The bait business has taken off better than I ever anticipated and it’s to the point where I may even start selling tackle,” he said thankfully. “My supplier now has to come by three days a week.” Different types of minnow buckets already line his shelves, from the inexpensive Styrofoam models to the higher end buckets with self-contained aerators.
Millspaugh is now considering the idea of raising the often hard to get and expensive soft shelled crayfish, routinely called softcraws, which he plans to sell. “Hopefully by raising them ourselves we can offer them at an affordable price,” he added.
“The bait business has ended up being a Godsend,” said Millspaugh, with appreciation. “Summer is normally a bit slower as far as the pet business, but bait sales has filled that gap and is better than I ever expected.” He was also surprised at the large number of ice fishermen who came by the store last season during our coldest months.
But there is an added benefit for the local businessman that goes beyond profit margins. “I love fishing and I love talking about fishing,” he added. “Plus the fishermen who come in are all so nice and have the greatest demeanor.”
Critter Corner, located at 1796 E. Vaile Ave, is open seven days a week, to the delight of many anglers. Doors open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 8pm and Sunday’s noon to 5pm. “I’ve had several fishermen ask if I would start opening at 5am,” he stated. “But I told them I am not getting up that early unless it’s me that’s going fishing,” he added with a laugh.